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Review of Jodi Dean’s Crowds and Party

On Collectives, Communicative Capitalism, and Suspension of the Individual Ego

In the years after the financial crisis of 2008, protesters took to the streets, pundits demanded reform, and politicians promised action. In the United States, the dark heart of neoliberal financial capital was finally confronted by the broken promises of its economy: income inequality, wealth gaps, untaxed financial income, and the vast disparity between the one percent and the rest of the country. It was a moment when it seemed that the system could not go on as it had.

Nowhere was this sense more palatable than in Zucotti Park, where the #OccupyWallStreet protesters set up camp. It was a moment when, especially for the Left, the world paused as if the railroad switch of history might suddenly direct the country on a new, more equitable track.

Six years later, even the meager gains from the Obama administration are likely to be reversed, perhaps setting the progressive agenda back decades.[1] For the Left, there is a sense that an opportunity was missed; a crisis wasted. Though published before the election, it is this sense of failure that animates political theorist Jodi Dean’s latest book, Crowds and Party.

The book continues a project that took shape in 2009 with the publication of a collection titled Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies. In those essays, Dean built on her earlier analysis of “communicative capitalism,” moving away from the critique of deliberative democracy and the work of Jürgen Habermas, now aligning the concept with the growing critique of neoliberalism and emphasizing how speech acts are commodified and co-opted by capitalism. Crowds and Party also builds on a second persistent theme in Dean’s work: she is the most prominent American academic defending and developing the work of Slavoj Žižek.[2] Like Žižek, Dean evinces a suspicion of identity politics, believing it to be a tool through which neoliberalism distracts workers from asserting their economic rights. Her previous book, Communist Horizons, engages Žižek and other European thinkers like Bruno Bosteels and Alain Badiou in their attempt to rehabilitate the theory of communism.[3]

It was not theory, but practice that prompted Crowds and Party, however. Dean judges Occupy, in which she participated, and other global protest movements to have failed. The book begins with a story about Occupy protesters talking themselves out of an action in the call-and-repeat form that became so iconic: “Everyone is an autonomous individual,” the crowd echoes.

This is a seminal moment for Dean, all the more powerful for experiencing it directly. Occupy’s failure resonates with her critique of communicative capitalism; as she argues in Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, the Left now speaks in the language of conservatism, fetishizing individuality at the expense of solidarity and political success.[4] In this sense, Dean’s newest book pulls on a loose thread from her last: How should the Left organize political movements to avoid the traps of neoliberal subjectivity?

Dean’s central themes are announced in the title: crowds and party. The former represent spontaneous group events, though pinning down a specific definition is harder than it should be.[5] Crowds are “an effect of collectivity, the influence — whether conscious, affective, or unconscious — of others.”[6] Unsurprisingly, she avoids using the derogatory term “mob” (and the literature on mobs). Dean wants us to celebrate the power and potential of crowds. In a typical passage eschewing causality, she writes, “[d]e-individualization accompanies intense belonging.”[7] She seems to exhort us: Look at how crowds let us transcend our individuality and difference. Look at how crowds demonstrate a collective will — not general or universal, but neither is it the mere aggregation of interests offered by liberal democracy. If Dean romanticizes the crowd throughout the book, it is not unlike the concert-goer who subsumes herself within the solidarity of the audience created by the shared experience of music.[8]

The romantic moment of the crowd demonstrates to participants (and to Dean, the spectator[9]) the limits of the bourgeois subject, enframed by individuality.[10] She engages with continental philosophy’s obsession with subjectivity to dethrone the individual from it’s privileged place. It is crucial for Dean to show that the individual is not the political atom,[11] but a contingent, historical project driven by capitalism. This argument is not controversial after Foucault, but her contention that no ontological priority should be given to individual subjects over collective ones is radical. She does not suggest that the consensus expected of individuals is directly analogous to the collective. Nor, surprisingly, does she deconstruct the idea of coherent interests at the individual level, leveraging psychoanalysis against homo-economicus. Nevertheless, Dean wants to argue that intelligible interests can be attributed to collectives, a move that allows her to replace the “individuals” of democratic theory with “collectives.” It’s crucial to her argument that crowds cannot fulfill this potential without transforming into a party.

Crowds are a valuable and functional form of political expression, but they have weaknesses according to Dean. Using Occupy as her example, she argues that crowds cannot survive long enough to create real political change. This is the lesson she learns from Occupy: “everyone is an autonomous individual” under communicative capitalism. But, her argument requires crowds, as collectives, to be have certain virtues as well as vices. It’s a fine line and she doesn’t walk it well. It is no surprise, then, that it is the idea of the party that sheds the vices, and builds on the virtues, of the crowd.

As with “crowd,” what Dean means by “party” is hard to grasp. Though she is associated with Slavoj Žižek (the author of a contrarian defense of Lenin, Revolution at the Gates) the concept of party in Crowds and Party is neither that of classical Marxist-Leninism nor that of modern political science. Then again, maybe it is. The confusion arises partly because Dean avoids concrete historical examples (to avoid discussions of Stalinism) and partly because what Dean ascribes to the party organization is not typically listed among its virtues. It is not an intellectual vanguard, the leadership, or even a specific organizational structure that Dean ultimately values. Where she talks about “substitutionism,”[12] it is not because she is a Leninist here, but because she is worried that the reader is predisposed to dismiss the idea of a Party entirely. Instead, the party form, like the crowd, provides a mechanism for the individual to find meaning and reinterpret their identity.

But the symbolic dimension of the party, its form as a place from which communists assess themselves and their actions, is what matters.[13]

 

The Communist Party provided an affective infrastructure through which everyday experiences took meaning separate from those channeled through capitalism.[14]

This concern with meaning and belief follows from Dean’s analysis of communicative capitalism, which co-opts and redeploys the languages of individuality and identity. Just as neoliberalism imposes individuality on us, Dean argues that it circumscribes the narratives we can tell about ourselves: we are always consumers, after all. All counter-narratives are co-opted and redirected by communicative capitalism.[15] Under such conditions, the revolutionary act is not to seize the state, but to create an autobiography unsullied by neoliberalism. The Party, like the crowd, breaks the neoliberal self into the collective, and reorients our perspective away from individualism. It is only as a member of a crowd that the individual can break the deep subjectification of the “society of control” and rediscover their autonomy. Paradoxically, then, Dean’s argument is that it is only by losing one’s individuality that we rediscover it.

An “affective infrastructure” drives her description of the party and the romanticism that colors it. It is the ability to subsume individuals into a collective that links the crowd and the party.

This focus on a solidarity that reframes our subjectivity is both a strength and weakness of Dean’s account. It is a strength insofar as it neatly addresses the problem of ideology: how will workers encased in ideology recognize their true interests? This, at least, was how the question was framed during the Second International period. Today, after Foucault, we’ve come to recognize that the subjectification process is both deep and pervasive. Any would-be revolutionary must address how individuals can confront and overcome the problem of ideology at the level of subject-formation. To her credit, Dean has an answer: participation in a collective event suspends the subject’s interpellation as an individual.

Dean makes clear from her discussion that this participation is a deep suspension of the individual ego to the collective. She recounts a story of a pregnant party member who is torn between her obligations as a mother and as a Communist. She “chafes” at the political quietude and isolation imposed by motherhood. Notably, in a section containing a rare historical example, Dean does not go on to describe the support and help provided by a Party willing to pitch in and help with childcare — a Party that cares about the mental health of its members. Rather, Dean writes,

All the multitudinous activities of living that seem so necessary from the perspective of capitalism fall to the wayside from the perspective of the Party.[16]

Even if hard-won, however, Dean’s rejection of modern identity at times borders on nihilism. “One was somebody,” she notes, “because one mattered to the collective.”[17] It is the perspective of the Party, then, and not that of the individual, that acts like a categorical imperative. It is a moral law, freely accepted and deeply felt.

Each feels the inner force of their collective strength as a command or duty. This duty is the collective desire impressing itself in the individual comrade.[18] 

 

The [correct, i.e., Party,] perspective is like a law, the law enabling communist desire, setting it apart from the capitalist world by holding up and uniting the experiences of the oppressed.[19]

All of this romanticism might be more palatable if Dean engaged more broadly in alternative perspectives. She engages no contemporary authors save for a few, predictable European, thinkers.[20] Her argument is difficult to disentangle from Lacanian psychoanalysis, meaning that if one is skeptical of efforts to apply psychological insights to macro-social events then Dean has little to say. And of political science, Dean is entirely neglectful. It’s perfectly fine to suggest that we speak a neutered, apolitical discourse, but the literature on democracy, representation, and political parties is directly relevant to Dean’s subject and citing it would benefit her scholarship.

The most interesting omission is the literature on mobs and atomized society. In the years following the revelations of the Holocaust, intellectuals and scholars struggled to understand the appeal of totalitarianism, a rubric that elided socialism and fascism. Among these writers were Eric Hoffer and Hannah Arendt. Their basic premise was that a society atomized by capitalism was easily reconstituted into a reactionary mob by a charismatic leader. Dean’s emphasis of the subsumption of self into the collective is eerily reminiscent of Hoffer, Arendt, and even Ernst Junger’s front mentality.[21] Put aside “the leader” for a moment. Here we have two descriptions of a collective event, each providing their members with meaning and discursive resources — an affective infrastructure. For anti-totalitarians, this loss of individuality was the sine qua non of the overt acts of evil perpetrated by Fascism. For Dean, the loss of individuality is a prelude to new forms of resistance to capitalism and collective organization. There is a striking incongruity here.

Jodi Dean is not a fascist, nor is her book. But I’m concerned that she doesn’t address the voluminous literature on masses and mobs, instead relying on Lacan to carry most of the epistemological water. Moreover, Dean’s politics reject the entire spectrum of identity politics that have driven the resurgence of Leftist politics in the last year, such as Occupy and #BlackLivesMatter. She would leave political activists without a theoretical vocabulary necessary to engage with and understand Trump supporters. When Dean writes, “attachment to identity is pathological,” this should concern us.[22] The history of actually existing communism is littered with the recantations of true believers and fellow travelers. If the god of communism failed, Dean wants her reincarnated. This seems far more troublesome than Leninism.

Footnotes:

[1] Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail documents how the Obama Administration, from the beginning, was unwilling to attempt deep reform of the banking system.

[2] Dean is the author of Žižek’s Politics (Verso, 2006). By extension, her writing is marked by Lacanian psychoanalysis.

[3] This project occurred first as a conference and was later published as a book, The Idea of Communism (Verso, 2010).

[4] Dean writes, “The era of communicative capitalism is the era of commanded individuality” (Crowds and Parties, 31).

[5] Dean provides several enigmatic definitions of her core concepts throughout the book. In the sense that Lacan represents her epistemological ground, the most elemental definition, still far from easy to understand, is: “The crowd rupture is the Real that incites political subjectification.” Later, she writes simply, “The crowd is the Real.”

[6] Dean Crowds and Parties, 8.

[7] Dean Crowds and Parties, 161.

[8] And having been broken out of the reverie, she now seeks to make the moment last, whether by inscribing music on discs or by institutionalizing the crowd into a party.

[9] Dean’s immersion in the crowd is broken when they assert their autonomy in chant. She is transformed from a participant into a spectator and judge at that moment. Perhaps it is she, not the crowd, that lacks solidarity?

[10] To make this point, Dean neatly reverses the Althusserian dictum: now, the subject is interpollated as an individual (Dean Crowds and Parties, 70-3).

[11] If I can borrow a metaphor from physics to replace the language of subjectivity which is deeply entwined in Dean’s argument.

[12] “Substitutionism” is a term attributed to Leon Trotsky, however Rosa Luxembourg predates him. Others like A.J. Polan have written modern versions. In summary, “substitutionism” claims that Leninism replaces the working class with the Party, and inevitably the Party is replaced by the Leader. Stalinism is a direct consequence of Leninism.

[13] Dean Crowds and Parties, 219.

[14] Dean Crowds and Parties, 220.

[15] This is an interesting potential contrast with Foucault, who might be read as advocating the strategy of self-definition in his discussion of Baudelaire in “What is Enlightenment?”

[16] Dean Crowds and Parties, 242.

[17] Dean Crowds and Parties, 236.

[18] Dean Crowds and Parties, 237.

[19] Dean Crowds and Parties, 243.

[20] Though not Ernesto Laclau, whose book On Populist Reason is conspicuously absent.

[21] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer. Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (especially volume 3). Ernst Junger, Storm of Steel. On Junger, see also Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary Modernism (Cambridge, 1984).

[22] Dean Crowds and Parties, 256.

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